COLLEGE PARK -- University of Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams looks at the late-season mess the Terrapins have gotten themselves into, and sees a simple way out of it.
Win three of the last four regular-season games, and all is well. Win three of the last four, and the proud tradition is maintained. Go 3-1 down the final stretch, which includes three home games, including dates with the league's two bottom feeders, and the Terps will finish 7-9 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and earn their 11th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
To get to 7-9 before next month's ACC tournament, Maryland would have to beat at least one ranked team (Wake Forest or N.C. State) -- something they have failed to do for the past six weeks while going 3-7 and losing to six straight Top 25 opponents.
Williams sees attainable goals in the numbers. The unranked Terps (13-10, 4-8), struggling in seventh place and headed for their lowest ACC finish in 11 years, are ranked 34th in the latest Ratings Percentage Index, have played a schedule that is among the top five in the game, and play in a league that easily rates as the strongest in the NCAA.
Maryland must erase its first three-game losing streak since February 2001, a drought marked by an average loss of 15 points. It needs to bounce back from an 86-63 rout at then-No. 3 Duke, its most lopsided ACC loss since the Blue Devils laid an 86-59 pounding on visiting Maryland on Jan. 29, 1998.
And the Terps need to consider only the Tigers, while doing their best to push aside the weight of tradition. Only five other schools besides Maryland -- Kansas, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Arizona and Indiana -- have been to at least 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments.
That's why Williams likes the short turnaround after the debacle in Durham, N.C., where Maryland barely competed after falling behind by 17 points at halftime on Sunday.
"This is one time I'm glad we're playing when we are. There's nothing to dwell on. You don't think about Duke. Just talk about Clemson," Williams said.
"[The tournament streak] is important to me, personally. At the same time, I know how to get there. You don't focus on the streak. You focus on Clemson. A win really rebuilds your confidence."
Yes, the Terps are officially in must-win territory. A loss tonight would be catastrophic. It could drop Maryland into eighth place, which would point the Terps toward the play-in game of the conference tournament. Maryland has not appeared in that game since 1993, the last time it failed to make the NCAAs.
And it would create a nearly impossible path for the Terps to reach the 7-9 conference mark and 16-victory total they covet.
Things have changed since Maryland's 65-52 win at Clemson on Jan. 25. That night, the Terps bounced back from losses to Georgia Tech and Duke, dominated the second half at sparsely attended Littlejohn Coliseum in the middle of an ice storm and felt good about themselves.
The Terps have gradually fallen apart since. Their inside game has vanished. Same with their outside shooting. They have never been much good at sharing the ball or shooting free throws. Their once-stout defense has revealed disturbing cracks.
And they came unglued at Duke, where senior center Jamar Smith produced four points and four rebounds, the Terps committed 23 turnovers that turned into 31 Duke points, and ineffective sophomore shooting guard Chris McCray spent the final 16:42 on the bench. McCray allowed a shot-clock violation after fielding an inbounds pass, then got a public undressing from Williams after voicing his displeasure on the bench.
Williams hinted that McCray could be benched tonight, meaning either D.J. Strawberry or Mike Jones could get his first career start, when the Terps try for their 13th straight victory over Clemson (10-14, 3-10). Maryland is 48-8 against the Tigers in College Park.
"There's a fine line [between] coddling people and getting them to be the best they can be," Williams said. "I want to be the best we can be this year, whatever that is."
How much has this team progressed since that high-water mark on Jan. 14? Have the Terps gotten any better, any more fundamentally sound since that exhilarating night when they beat the Tar Heels, 90-84, making Maryland 10-3?
"I don't know. You don't know when they come here as a group. Maybe we've done a good job," Williams said. "I'll have a chance to sit down [and evaluate] once the season is over.
"This year has been the best I've seen in the ACC, in terms of one through nine [teams]. We hit it with five freshmen, four sophomores and a second-year senior. The timing might not be good for that. We'll see how it goes."
Matchup: Clemson (10-14, 3-10 ACC) vs. Maryland (13-10, 4-8)
Site: Comcast Center, College Park
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)